Botanical extracts are concentrated plant materials providing therapeutic properties, which have been extracted through a variety of methods, including:

  • Steam distillation
  • Solvent extraction
  • CO2 extraction
  • Cold pressing
  • Oil infusion
  • Alcohol infusion
  • and Glycerol extracts

There are a wide variety of types of botanical extracts. Essential oils are probably the most well known type, but there’s also:

  • Hydrosols
  • Alcohol Tinctures
  • CO2 extracts
  • Glycerites
  • Powdered Extracts
  • And more!

These botanical extracts are amazing ingredients to use in formulations when you want to imbue your products with a specific plant’s beneficial properties in a concentrated, effective way.

While we’ve already covered essential oils, we wanted to spend some time focusing on some of the other botanical extracts that might not be as commonly used or understood—but can still pack a punch!

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Water-based extracts

Water is not a very strong solvent and there are not many plants that are commonly extracted using water. A few common water-based botanical extracts that are used in skincare products include:

  • Green tea extract
  • Aloe extract
  • Cucumber extract

You can incorporate these water-based extracts into your skincare products by using them in your hydrous (water based) products e.g. toners and spritzers or emulsions (creams and lotions).

Note: Some people like to make their own water-based extracts by infusing herbs in hot water (just like making a tea). While this might sound appealing we don’t recommend it as it can introduce contaminants into your products and make them very hard to preserve.

Alcohol Tinctures

Compared to water, alcohol is a more effective solvent, and used in making tinctures. There are also tinctures made with part alcohol and part water, too.

A few common alcohol-based tinctures used in skincare products are:

  • Horse chestnut
  • Arnica
  • Calendula
  • Nettle

Alcohol and Alcohol/Water Tinctures are water-soluble as well, and can be used in skincare formulations by adding them to your hydrous products e.g. toners and spritzers or your emulsions e.g. creams and lotions.

However, one thing to be aware of with alcohol tinctures is that the high ethanol content can be drying or even irritating for sensitive skin. So just be aware of how much of it you’re using in your products, and what type of product you use it in.

CO2 extracts

CO2 extracts are really fascinating, because instead of using water, alcohol, or a mixture of the two, plant material is extracted using supercritical carbon dioxide. A supercritical fluid is one that is held at a specific temperature and pressure, allowing it to behave like many of the commonly used solvents (like acetone, chloroform, or ethyl acetate) but with the benefit of easily evaporating out, leaving behind no harmful residue. This leaves behind only the pure extract of the plant. In the case of CO2, the extraction process can be done at a very low temperature, which is less harmful for the active components of the plant material.

CO2 extracts are oil soluble, and in some ways, they can be similar to:

  • Essential oils, in that they can contain a high quantity of volatile aromatic molecules. (For example, lavender CO2 extract.)
  • Carrier oils, in that they can be predominantly made of triglycerides. (Sea buckthorn CO2 extract is a good example of this.)
  • Or, they can resemble very concentrated oil extracts. (Calendula CO2 extract appears this way.)

CO2 extracts can be used in anhydrous (oil based) products or emulsions (creams and lotions).

Glycerites

For this type of extract, instead of alcohol or water, the solvent used is glycerin (or a glycerin-water mixture.)

Some common Glycerites you might want to try in your formulations are:

  • Cucumber
  • Edelweiss
  • Horse chestnut
  • Rose

As glycerites have a glycerin base they also function as humectants which means they attract moisture to the skin and keep it hydrated. They can sometimes feel quite sticky, if used at a concentration of 3-4% and above. Glycerites are water soluble.

Five Quick Pointers for Working with Botanical Extracts

  1. These high-performance ingredients might sound complicated or intimidating, but don’t let that fool you. You can absolutely learn to formulate with these ingredients the way the pros do—and create one-of-a-kind, decadent, effective products!
  2. Each different type of botanical extract has advantages and disadvantages, and you need to know what you’re doing before you work with them so you can select the best fit for your project.
  3. Generally speaking, the percentage of botanical extract used in each formulation is quite small, but because they are so concentrated, they really do provide a tremendous benefit despite that seemingly small amount. This means they can be a cost effective ingredients to use.
  4. Keep things simple! Resist the urge to load up on too many extracts in a formulation, and go for quality, specificity and function over quantity. Allow the ingredients to have room to do their work, rather than competing.
  5. If you want to add in a botanical extract to an existing formulation, you need to adjust the formula and tweak the percentages! Make sure you take into account which type of extract is most suitable, for example do you need a water soluble or oil soluble extract?

There’s so much more to discover about extracts—the specific benefits they offer, how they enhance your products, and what you need to know to use them safely and effectively. We are so pleased to offer a comprehensive course in professional skincare formulation that covers this, and many more topics. Our Diploma in Natural Skincare Formulation will take you from making products as a hobby to formulating the way the professionals do.

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